Sharks in Hawaii

Many visitors to Hawaii wonder if there are sharks in Hawaii and how likely it is to get bitten or killed by one. Here is an overview about sharks in Hawaiian waters, Hawaii shark attack statistics, as well as safety tips.

How common are shark attacks in Hawaii?

The chances of being attacked by a shark in Hawaii are very low. In fact, most water-related deaths in Hawaiian waters are not due to shark attacks, but due to drowning. On average, 60 people die each year by drowning in Hawaii, according to the State of Hawaii Department of Health Injury Prevention and Control Program. By comparison, in 2007, there were eight shark attacks in Hawaii; in 2008, there were two attacks and in 2009, there were three attacks.

People often times underestimate the power of strong currents, rip tides, high waves and powerful shorebreaks. To swim in an ocean is a lot different than in a pool. Also, sometimes people walk too close to the edge of a sea cliff and get swept into the ocean by a sudden, unexpected wave or flash flood.

To bring it into perspective, from 1882 to 2009, there have been a total of 114 shark attacks in Hawaii, of which 11 were fatal (the last being in 2004 when a surfer was killed off Kahana Beach on Maui), according to the International Shark Attack File, Florida Museum of Natural History, University of Florida. About 7.4 million visitors come to the Islands each year. On any given day, there are thousands of people swimming in Hawaii’s ocean. Compared to the many people in the water, the rate of shark attacks in Hawaii at about three per year is low. Of the shark attacks that do occur, most are not fatal. To see a map of Hawaii’s unprovoked shark attacks that have occurred between the years 1828 to 2009, visit

Why do sharks occasionally attack humans?

Sharks play an essential part in the world’s oceans. They balance other fish populations. The most common shark attack on humans is the so-called “hit and run” attack. In other words, the shark bites the human (usually in the arm or leg), but quickly lets go because he realizes that the human is not the seal or turtle he thought it is. From below, this is how humans look like to a shark, especially surfers on a surfboard. Even though most sharks have a well-developed sense of vision, they can confuse humans with other marine animals that are on their regular menu. Humans also often times splash around while swimming, which further attracts sharks because for them it symbolizes sick or injured marine life.

How many shark species can be found in Hawaiian waters?

There are about forty species of shark in Hawaii, of which eight can be observed near shore, including the reef whitetip, sandbar, scalloped hammerhead and tiger shark, according to the Hawaiian Lifeguard Association. Tiger sharks are the shark species that most often attack humans in Hawaiian waters.

What safety precautions can one take to reduce the risk of being attacked by a shark?

The State of Hawaii Shark Task Force gives the following tips to reduce the risk of suffering a shark attack:

  • Don't swim alone.
  • Swim in guarded areas where lifeguards are present.
  • Avoid swimming in the dark or twilight hours – this is when sharks are believed to be most active.
  • Don't swim with bleeding wounds because sharks have a good sense of smell and are attracted to blood, as well as urine.
  • Avoid murky water and waters with runoff or swimming near fishing boats.
  • Don't wear shiny jewelry or high contrasting colors.
  • Don’t splash around unnecessarily – this can attract sharks because it signals injured marine life to them.
  • Don't swim if sharks are known to be present.
  • Be alert if turtles and fish are fleeing the area.

What to do after a shark attack has happened?

Administer first aid. Get the victim out of the water. Apply direct pressure to the wound. Wrap a compressing towel (or anything else that’s available, such as a t-shirt, etc.) around the injured area to stop bleeding. Call 911 immediately. Stay with the victim and keep the victim calm and warm.

Sharks in Hawaiian culture

Sharks have always played a big role in Hawaiian culture. From one side, the animal provided the people with tools. Shark teeth, for example, were used as a knife and shark skins were used for hula drums. But sharks also played a role in Hawaiian spirituality. Some shark species were considered equal to Hawaiian ali'i (royalty). Sometimes when a family member died, it was believed that the deceased could reincarnate in the form of a shark. This shark then was the family's 'aumakua, a guardian spirit and protector. Also, at least nine Hawaiian gods are associated with sharks: Kamohoali'i, Kua, Kuhaimoana, Kawelomahamahai'a, Kane'apua, Kaholia-Kane, Ka'ahupahau, Keali'ikau o Ka'u and Kaehuikimano o Pu'uloa.